Steve Jobs’ famous drive for end-to-end control of Apple’s products helped to create and define one of the most successful companies in the world. Now, Apple is finally opening up—and that’s good news.
Apple HQ. Image: Daniel Spiess/Flickr
When the iPhone launched in 2007, it was a totally walled garden. All of its apps were in-house. For the first year, no third-party apps were allowed—Steve Jobs' ethos was, famously, that tight, end-to-end control over Apple's decidedly user-friendly devices was best. To paraphrase, he didn't want any shitty software that sucked mucking up his insanely great products.
But after a volley of complaints and entreaties (and some jailbreaking), developers helped push Apple to open up the iOS ecosystem—helping to unlock the phone's massive potential in the process. In 2007 there were zero outside developers contributing to the App Store, which didn't exist until 2008. In 2016, there are 13 million, according to CEO Tim Cook.
Now, Apple's cracking that ecosystem open even more, further slackening Jobs' infamous philosophy. At this year's WWDC, Apple announced that even some of its own apps would be open to developers: the famously fraught Maps, the popular staple iMessage, and, most notably, our best-known AI assistant, Siri. That announcement brought on what was probably the biggest round of cheers and applause I heard at the two-hour keynote, where I was taking in the extravaganza amidst giddy developers and nerve-wracked Applers.
Developers will now be able to incorporate Siri's API into their apps—we'll, ideally, be able to have Siri order us lunch or find a song on Spotify or call us an Uber, or who knows what else. (Siri's also headed for the Mac.) And entire startups may now devote themselves to diversifying iMessage with interactive GIFs and games.
Meanwhile, Apple's reducing its take from subscription-based apps, from 30 percent of their annual revenue to 15 percent (after the first year, in which Apple will still take the full 30). The message is clear: Come hither, developers, and build your products to last on iOS. And we'll reward you for it. It's a developer-friendlier Apple that's revealing not just of the company's slowly pivoting culture, but of the general economics of the tech industry.
Much has been made about the slowing sales of the iPhone—"slowing" from scores of millions a quarter to, like, a couple million fewer—and while the analysts' hysterics are mostly overblown, it is true that we're probably approaching something resembling market saturation. But all smartphones are. Once everybody has a reliable smartphone, the apps (and the ecosystems that foster them) will be paramount. Hence Apple's new suite of incentives to bolster both.
Apple is getting some criticism for not making a bigger splash with a particular product this WWDC, or for overwhelming with too many small user-friendly upgrades, but this seems wise to me—and also, at least for Apple, quietly radical. It's a tacit acknowledgement that as core gadget sales plateau, developers will take more of the center stage. (And outside the blogs, and inside the Civic Auditorium, the developers I spoke with were legitimately enthused about the new toys and the creep towards openness.)
If I put on my bent aluminum futurist hat, I don't see another device supplanting the smartphone's centrality anytime soon (even if sweeping statements like that are basically written to be refuted), at least in a board of directors' definition of "soon." The Echo and smartwatches are neat, but they're ancillary devices. Sure, eventually, there will be a holographic retina implant or something that will become the new universal UI for consumer electronics. Until then, we'll be prodding iPhone-inspired touchscreens with our fingers.
To keep us happy in the interim, Apple seems to be de-Jobsing; beckoning outside brains and ideas and programs from its enormous throng of dedicated developers instead of fiercely engineering proprietary products from within. Relinquishing some control. For the time being. This is smart! Many of the key apps that ensured the iPhone's success in the first place were third party entries: Google Maps, Instagram, Uber, etc. And Siri's name recognition can give it an edge in the nascent talk-to-my-apps arena, and iMessage could become a new frontier for revenue. All around, more openness could invigorate the ecosystem.
Notably, this de-Jobsing of Apple is occurring alongside the un-Googling of Google and the macro-shifting of Microsoft, and so on. It seems like every major consumer-facing tech company has long since expanded into frontiers that don't necessarily suit their preconceived forte—Google's forays into hardware, with Motorola and Nest, have made for clumsy bedfellows with its sterling search software (and left the company with multibillion dollar losses), and Microsoft has become such a sprawling khaki-clad octopus of Surfaces and office software I don't even know what to make of it anymore, with or without LinkedIn.
Whether it's due to tech bubble 2.0 bloat or a grey lapse between codified technological trends, the titans seem to be experimenting more, lapsing brand identity more, and trawling more openly for the Next Big Thing.
Perhaps more than its peers—and befitting the largest publicly held company in the world—Apple commands the diehard base to help them cobble it together. I spoke to one 20-year-old developer from Latvia who'd flown to the Apple event after winning one of the 350 WWDC scholarships. He designed an app that could regulate the temperature and measure the air quality of his apartment through a couple Raspberry Pis. He was absolutely pumped to be there. Tim Cook told the crowd that their youngest-ever registered developer was in attendance. She's 9.
Those people, along with the hundreds who swarmed the stage after Cook bid us adieu, taking selfies and grinning wide, are now poised to take the reins of Apple's future—even if Jobs wouldn't necessarily have wanted them to.